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October 28, 2014 7:17 am

Diversity and Jewish History

avatar by Lawrence J. Siskind

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Office of The New York Times, in New York City. Photo: WikiCommons.

Office of The New York Times. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Silicon Valley has a “diversity problem.” According to a New York Times editorial, most Silicon Valley employees are white and Asian men. “Among technical employees,” the Times noted, “few are women, and even fewer are Latino or African-American.” The editorial noted that there is “a lot the government needs to do,” and it urged the technology industry to “start tackling its diversity problem right now,” implying that if the industry doesn’t fix the problem, the government will.

We may not read about it in the Times, but there are even more egregious “diversity problems” throughout the economy.

Consider the Cambodians. They comprise 0.09% of the population, less than one tenth of one percent. Yet here in California, 90% of the doughnut shops are owned by Cambodians.”Ž

The Cambodian-doughnut “problem” is not unique. The Vietnamese make up about 0.5% of the population, one half of one percent. Yet 43% of nail technicians in the United States and about 80% in California are Vietnamese.”Ž

African-Americans are over-represented in the Federal workforce. Though only 10% of the civilian labor force, they make up 38% of Housing and Urban Development, 42% of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and 55% of the Government Printing Office employees.”Ž

The New York City cab business suffers from another “diversity” problem. According to the Times, 84% of the City’s taxi drivers are immigrants. Drivers from the West Indies (Dominican Republic or Haiti) alone make up about 23% of the total of the City’s drivers.”Ž

Why aren’t we outraged by these other diversity “problems”?

Perhaps because we realize that human beings are not fungible. Today, as throughout history, different nationalities and ethnic groups gravitate toward different job areas.

In some cases, the reasons are easily understood. California’s Napa Valley, with a climate similar to that of Tuscany, attracted Italian immigrants who brought their centuries-old tradition of winemaking, allowing them to dominate the field. German dominance in the American beer industry was a natural outgrowth of their long history of brewing in the Old Country.

Some “diversity problems” are not so easily explained. By the end of the 19th century, about 70% of New York City’s policemen were Irish-born. They had no strong tradition of joining the constabulary. Instead, they gravitated to police work because it was one of the few types of work open to them. Police work was seen as menial and even thuggish. Irishmen became policemen for the same reason that Jews became moneylenders: it was a despised field and therefore open to a despised minority.”Ž

These illustrations barely touch the surface of the complexity of the “diversity problem.” When one drills down, one finds dramatic differences within different nationalities and ethnic groups themselves.

The Jewish people are generally classified as either Sephardic or Ashkenazic. But Thomas Sowell, the Stanford social theorist, has noted that even among the Ashkenazic, one can detect significant differences. In Australia, “Jews from Eastern Europe have tended to cluster in and around Melbourne, while Germanic Jews have settled in and around Sydney. They even have a saying among themselves that Melbourne is a cold city with warm Jews while Sydney is a warm city with cold Jews.””Ž

One may bear these strong ancestral attitudes without even being aware of them. I was the first in my family to become a lawyer, and I smugly considered myself something of a pioneer. But years later, I discovered that my grandfather grew up in Grodno, where half of the city’s lawyers were Jewish. In choosing a legal career, I was staying close to my roots.”Ž

Adding to the mystery of diversity is the fact that ethnic dominance is often transitory. In the early decades of the 20th century, Jews dominated professional boxing. Between 1910 and 1940, there were 26 Jewish boxing champions. Between 1920 and 1930, fully one third of all professional boxers were Jewish, a higher percentage than that of Italians and Irish, the next two highest ethnic contenders. Yet as quickly as they established their dominance, Jews disappeared from the ring. By 1950, there were hardly any prominent Jewish boxers.”Ž

The Jewish experience in boxing shows that nothing is static. The Cambodian children of doughnut shop owners, and the Vietnamese children of manicure establishment owners, will likely follow different career paths than their parents, and the dominance of these ethnic groups will fade into history.

And so, I am not excited by the New York Times’ concern over the “diversity problem” in high tech. Human beings are complicated amalgams of individual and group character traits. To think that social pressure or government fiat can herd them into occupational fields in pari passu is to misconceive human nature and experience. One may just as well attempt to channel the ocean tides with sheets of cellophane. Human beings are and should be equal before the law. But they carry in their heads and hearts very different experiences and mindsets, and that makes them fascinatingly, mysteriously, and happily unequal.

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